Four elections in one

Political landscape: The different agendas of the UK’s four parts are affecting the bigger picture.

Is the UK having one general election or four very different elections? Politics in Northern Ireland has always been different. But, recently, England, Scotland and Wales have also diverged.

  • Are there really four elections?

    Yes, the contests in the four constituent parts of the UK are now very different from one another.

    The support for parties also varies markedly between the four regions.

    There are significant parties that only stand in one of the four, in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

    And the so-called national parties (the Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats) do not stand in Northern Ireland.

  • Is England a two-party contest?

    The majority of MPs — 533 out of 650 — are elected in England.

    In 2017, the Tories won 297 of these seats — well ahead of Labour on 227, eight Liberal Democrats and one Green MP.

    England has usually been a two-party race, although it has also seen the slow but steady growth of the Liberal Democrats.

    So, back in 2010, although it was also dominated by the Conservatives with 298 MPs, Labour only had 191 and the Liberal Democrats 43 seats. The share of the vote makes the three-way split even clearer: the Tories won 40%, Labour 28% and the Lib Dems 24%.

    But 2015 proved a disaster for the Liberal Democrats – from 43 MPs in 2010, they crashed to just six, after their period in coalition government with the Conservatives. They won only eight seats in 2017.

  • Is Scotland now a nationalist stronghold?

    Politically, Scotland has rapidly become more distinctive since 2010.

    In that year, Labour won 41 of Scotland’s 59 MPs. For decades, Scotland had been regarded as a Labour stronghold.

    Only five years later, in 2015, all that changed. Labour lost 40 MPs in the general election, and the SNP surged from only six MPs in 2010 to 56 in 2015. The Liberal Democrats, also traditionally stronger in Scotland, were reduced from 11 MPs to just one.

    Although the SNP tide retreated in 2017 – they were reduced to 35 MPs – there is little sign of Scotland returning to the political configuration that held before 2015.

    The Tories did better there in 2017, gaining 12 extra MPs to bring their contingent up to a more respectable 13 (better than 2010 when they also only had one). Labour also went from one to seven, and the Lib Dems from one to four.

    Scotland is, however, potentially volatile – 46 of 59 seats are marginals, that is where the sitting MP won by less than 10%.

  • Is Wales still Labour?

    Labour has fared better in Wales than in Scotland. In 2010, they won 26 MPs, out of 40 seats. In 2015, it was 25 and 2017 they won 28.

    There has been no big nationalist surge in Wales. Plaid Cymru (the Welsh nationalist equivalent of the SNP in Scotland) has remained a minor force in Westminster elections —although they have done better in elections for the Welsh Assembly.

    Plaid Cymru won just three seats in 2010 and again in 2015, rising to four in 2017.

    The Conservatives have also remained a small but fairly consistent force in Welsh politics, with eight MPs in 2010, 11 in 2015 and back down to eight in 2017.

    The Liberal Democrats have lost ground in Wales, down from three MPs in 2010, to only one in 2015 and then none in 2017.

  • What about Northern Ireland?

    The main political dividing line in Norther Ireland politics, since its foundation in 1921, has been along national identity lines rather than the Left-Right divide in the rest of the UK. So, its elections are always very different.

    Recent years have seen the consolidation of two parties representing this division: in 2017, the Democratic Unionist Party with ten MPs, and Sinn Fein with seven, although they do not take their seats at Westminster.

  • Does the UK have a political identity crisis?

    It is increasingly clear that the four parts of the UK have very different political dynamics, and this is affecting UK-wide politics dramatically.

    For the three, main, supposedly national parties, the consequences have been dramatic.

    Labour has lost, for the foreseeable future, their bastion in Scotland, with the very real possibility of Scotland seceding from the UK entirely. Labour is now an English and Welsh party.

    The Conservatives have been reduced to being almost entirely an English party, with only small outposts in Scotland and Wales.

    The Liberal Democrats also reduced to being an England-only party at Westminster, with only a small Scottish foothold remaining.

    This briefing is produced by The Day in association with ENGAGE Public Policy.

You Decide

  1. Should there be four elections to four Parliaments?


  1. Draw a map of the UK in which each of the four countries is scaled in proportion to the number of MPs it elects to Westminster. If you do it correctly, it will make a very interesting map!

Word Watch

Liberal Democrats
In the 19th and early 20th century, the Liberal Party and the Conservatives were the two main parties in the UK. After WW1, Labour became more popular, pushing the Liberals into third place. In 1981, a split from the Labour Party formed the Social Democrat Party (SDP). In 1988, the SDP merged with the Liberal Party to become the Social and Liberal Democrats. In 1989, the party changed its name to the Liberal Democrats.
In politics, a place where there is strong support for a particular party.
A group of people sharing a common feature.
Likely to change suddenly or dramatically.
Welsh Assembly
The National Assembly for Wales, the devolved Welsh Parliament that can make its own laws and taxes, for example, for Wales.
A place or person holding strong beliefs or attitudes.
Withdrawing from membership of an alliance or group.

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